September 15, 2015


In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but contain the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

I Found Stella Parish, directed by studio stalwart Mervyn Leroy (I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang) was such a success on its New York opening that WB extended Francis’ contract well before it was to expire. Based on a John Monk Saunders story called “The Judas Tree”, it is the story of London stage sensation Stella Parish (Francis), who disappears right after another smash hit debuts. A shadowy figure from her past appears in her dressing room, threatening to reveal a violent secret. In order to protect her daughter, Parish flees home to the US, and is trailed by a reporter, who reveals her past involvement in a murder case. Fashion is closely tied to identity. On the ship from London to the US,Francis hides her identity as a gray-haired granny in what looks like conservative mourning clothes. When she takes off the wig and returns to her natural age, reality sets in, the past still on her trail.

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Parish abandons her daughter to keep her free of scandal, and hits the stage to cash in on her newfound fame. Francis goes from grand dame lead in London to vaudeville circuit curiosity, her wardrobe getting tawdry, her language salty. There are no surprises in the film, but it hits its marks, and Francis is reliably stunning in Orrin-Kelly’s draping, backless gowns, and she positively glows with mother-love:


The White Angel is something else entirely, a drab biopic of Florence Nightingale’s reformation of England’s nursing corps during WWI. Director William Dieterle, who had directed Francis before in the fast-paced screwball heist film Jewel Robbery (’32), seems bored with the material, as does most of the cast and crew, although there are a few nice tracking shots of Nightingale checking on wounded veterans, lit only by a lantern. But Francis wasn’t right for the role, and she knew it: “I shudder to think of that one”, she said in 1938:


More importantly, the studio was displeased. Producer Hal Wallis:  “In scene after scene, reacting to the sight of the injured…she looked completely blank. We weren’t too happy with the picture. The White Angel was well directed, but miscast, and Kay Francis had lost the box office she once had. It was one of our box office failures.” Though he overstated the financial failure (it made $886,000 domestically on a $506,00 budget), the perception was something of a disaster. And once she lost that shine, she had trouble getting it back, not that WB was giving her great opportunities to succeed.


Confession (1937) is the most fascinating film of the three (and the least successful at the box office), directed by German expat Joe May (Asphalt). The film was a remake of the Pola Negri movie Mazurka (1935), and reportedly May was militant about copying the film down to the second, showing up to the set with a stopwatch to make sure the shot length matched exactly. The movie has a complex flashback structure, delving into the past of Vera (Francis), as she is being tried for murder. A one-time actress in operettas for Michael Michailow (Basil Rathbone), she had later married, divorced, and lost her daughter in the split. Each phase of her life brings a different haircut and wardrobe, from the chin-length blonde locks of her court date, to a curly golden wig of her nightclub routine, back to her days as a happy-go-lucky brunette. Francis doesn’t even appear in the film for the first twenty minutes, a bold narrative strategy that focuses on secondary characters in elaborate tracking shot sequences, in and around a transit station, and then up and through a dinner theater. The lengthy prologue ends with Francis in a tacky patterned dress and wig, desperate to end that segment of her life. And so she does, with a gunshot to her male tormentor’s torso. The film has a strong sense of female solidarity, as Vera finds sympathy and tenderness from the second wife of her husband  and the estranged daughter who was the cause of it all. The intensity of that bond is terribly moving, and May’s roving camera and cluttered mise-en-scene provides a background of  a life in disarray. After the disappointing returns on The White Angel and Confession, WB started giving her cheaper projects, eventually shunting her off to their B unit, until they terminated her contract in 1939.

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February 17. 2015

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“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation

Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges  the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper).  Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.

The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.


Director William Dieterle had just completed The Devil and Daniel Webster, which he developed with his own production company, and had distributed by RKO. On Syncopation Dieterle again had a producer credit, indicating some manner of control over the material. A competing project was already underway, with Bing Crosby’s The Birth of the Blues being made at Paramount, directed by former composer Victor Schertzinger. It was a loose biopic of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and was a success after opening in November of 1941, while Syncopation was still shooting. There was a market for pop biopics, it seems, and RKO must have been encouraged by that films returns. Syncopation originated as the story “The Band Played On” by Valentine Davies, who would go on to write and direct The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Dieterle brought on his own people, getting Philip Yordan and Frank Cavett to write the screenplay. Dieterle had seen Yordan’s first play, the off-broadway Any Day Now, and invited him to Hollywood. Yordan would go on to have a remarkable career in Hollywood, writing scripts for The Man From Laramie and The Big Combo, while also agreeing to be a front for many Blacklist-era writers.


During the scriptwriting process, the German Dieterle would send his scripts for notes to his friend Max Horkheimer, the famed philosopher and sociologist of the Frankfurt School. According to David Jenemann’s Adorno in America, Dieterle sent an early draft of the Syncopation script to Horkheimer, who then passed it along to their mutual friend (and fellow member of the Frankfurt School) Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s comments on the Syncopation script survive, and Jaenemann reports that he wrote, “My private opinion that it will be a flop again because of lack of clarity of music issue. Praise basic idea of advocating jazz in its boldest form.” He argued for further prominence of the Rex character, and that he should win the jazz contest that closes the script (not in the finished film). Adorno was antagonistic to jazz in his published writings, but here pushes the improvisational approach represented by Rex.


The movie begins with Rex, a poor black trumpet prodigy in  New Orleans sick of learning Bach in school, so runs off with juke joint elder King Jeffries (Rex Stewart, a cornetist for Duke Ellington) instead. While he hits the steamboat circuit, his jazz-mad white friend Kit (Bonita Granville, the first screen Nancy Drew) moves to Chicago, where she is set to marry Paul, the son a family friend. She finds a local white juke joint with the help of struggling musician Johnny (Jackie Cooper), where she introduces them to the New Orleans style of swing. She hooks Johnny up with Rex, who teaches him how to play hot. At this point Rex disappears from the plot, cut out by the antsy RKO editors. It’s clear that Johnny’s anxiety of influence should build to a battle of the bands between Rex and Johnny, one that legitimizes Johnny’s talent — but it never happens. Instead WWI comes and robs Kit of her fiance, and she takes up with Johnny, and they bite and claw their way through the white jazz establishment, battling against the “sweet”, popular stylings of “Ted Browning’s Symphony of Jazz”, a clear swipe at the Paul Whitemans and Guy Lombardos who tried to give jazz classical airs to make it palatable to middle class white America. The film has something to say about passionate, talented white musicians earning their way into the black jazz community, but it’s all left on the editing room floor. The film doesn’t build to anything so much as smash cut to an all-star jazz band chosen by the Saturday Evening Post, said to represent the future of jazz. They are the very talented and very white group of Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jack Jenny, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey and Joe Venuti.

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There is a distinct possibility that a much more interesting movie was left in the editing room. Early reviews cite the appearance of Robert Benchley as a kind of narrator (absent from the final cut), and early drafts of the script posit Rex as a competitor to Johnny through the final scene. An early assembly of the film was 146 minutes, and the one released by RKO was 88. This was an A-picture chopped down to programmer status, costing over half a million, but released on a double bill and buried, taking a loss of $87,000. Critics were understandably unkind. At the New York Times Bosley Crowther called it “shoddy, stylized pretense….A bang-up film about early jazz has yet to be made.” While Billboard magazine’s Dick Carter said “it fizzled like a soggy firecracker”, and the stinging closer, “Birth of the Blues was better.” Syncopation was released into theaters on May 22nd, 1942. That month Dizzy Gillespie recorded a solo with Les Hite’s band that did not follow chord changes. At the same time Charlie Parker was playing with Jay McShann’s band, after inventing bebop at after hours clubs across New York City. The music was changing yet again, and Hollywood would have even less of a clue of what to do with it.


November 15, 2011

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The previously hazy career of William Dieterle is slowly being brought into focus, as the Warner Archive and repertory screenings grant incrementally wider access to this neglected German-American filmmaker. The Archive has just released Fashions of 1934 (’34) and Juarez (1939), while the 92Y Tribeca recently screened a gorgeous new print of Love Letters (1945, scheduled to air on Jan. 21st at 10PM on TCM). The Warner Archive discs display opposite poles of his career, the dynamic fantasist and the staid historical dramatist, while the hallucinatory Love Letters lies somewhere in between.

Fashions of 1934 reunites Dieterle with William Powell, whom he had worked with two years earlier on Jewel Robbery (which I wrote about earlier this year). Powell again plays a suave member of the criminal class, but instead of a dapper thief he’s con-man Sherwood Nash, dealing knock-off couture gowns to department stores around town. Along to help him are Bette Davis as the eager fashion designer Lynn and Frank McHugh as his trusty dissembler Snap. In order to keep ahead of the trends, they fly to Paris to spy on the elite fashion housesAs the cops and the real designers close in on them, it’s up to Sherwood to lie his way out once again. Like Jewel Robbery, Fashions is a fairy tale of criminality, only focused through a male POV this time. Both define thievery and pirating as a kind of harder working entrepreneurship that leads straight to our preferred dream life.

It seems like the entire budget was funneled into the Busby Berkeley-directed musical number towards the end of the feature, but Dieterle makes the most of the drab office sets at his disposal. He focuses on Powell’s posture, his leans over the desks and chairs indicating the relative state of his pocketbook and love life. The dialogue is rolled out in an unvaryingly speedy pace, with the only indication of an emotional shift present in Powell’s relationship to furniture. Even when urging Lynn to marry another man, his voice betrays nothing – it is his body that gives him away. In seduction mode, he tilts forwardas if heading into an oncoming wind, offering his body to his suitably awed targets. It works with the store owners who agree to stock his knock-offs, as well as the vamp who bamboozles a French designer. With Lynn though, he always stands ramrod straight, often in group shots with Snap. It is only when he kneels down at the end in supplication that he can win her hand.

Davis was not happy with the film, saying that she “was glamorized beyond recognition”, and she does seem uncomfortable, never quite locking in to the screwball tempo set by Powell. Despite her reservations, the film was fairly well received, with positive notices from influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (“very excellent”) and the New York Times: “The story is lively, the gowns are interesting and the Busby Berkeley spectacles with Hollywood dancing girls are impressive. ” The Berkeley musical, wrenched in as part of Sherwood’s plot to increase demand for ostrich feathers, is suitably insane, turning the female models into mutating patterns of harps, flowers and oarsmen. The harp-women are fun and disturbing, but it is Sherwood’s demonic energy in conjuring his dreams into reality that lingers.

Juarez (1939), a dramatization of the Mexican Revolution, lacks the speed and physical expressiveness of Fashions, collapsing under the weight of its ambition. This was a major project for Warner Brothers, and Dieterle assuredly didn’t have the freedom as on his previous quickies. The AFI Catalog lists the massive amounts of resources poured into the feature:

The picture represented Warner Bros. most ambitious project to date. According to the production files, every detail was exhaustively researched for historical accuracy. The files contained long lists of reference books in both English and Spanish. Press releases refer to the film’s extensive research. According to modern sources, the writers had a bibliography of 372 volumes, documents and period photographs. Art director Anton Grot drew 3,643 sketches from which engineers prepared 7,360 blueprints for the exteriors and interiors of the settings. A complete Mexican village was built on the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, CA.

Dieterle did not excel in the realist mode, with his light touch being weighed down with the anvil of historical “truth”, at least that according to studio researchers. It’s no surprise that the result is leaden and monotonously expository, which is not aided by Paul Muni’s grotesque makeup job as Benito Juarez, looking like he got a jumbo Botox injection. Every character states their motivation and provides historical context within the same sentence. The saving graces occur in the prissy arrogance of Claude Rains as Napoleon III, and the sensitive handling of Carlotta’s (Bette Davis) descent into madness, which rekindles for a moment Dieterle’s skill at eliciting hyper-real, dreamlike performances.

This skill is on full display in Love Letters (1945), a delirious romantic melodrama that Dieterle made when he was a freelancer, taking on short-term deals with studios. Producer Hal Wallis tapped him to direct the treatment, starting a professional relationship that would last until 1953. According to Bernard F. Dick’s biography of Wallis,  the producer purchased the rights to Chris Massie’s novel, Pity My Simplicity, in 1944, for $35,000, and was adapted for the screen by Ayn Rand (whose novel Fountainhead was released in ’43). It tells the story of Quinton (Joseph Cotten), an army man who ghost writes love letters for his friend while at the front. Although they have never met, Quinton falls in love with the woman he is writing them to, Victoria Morland (Jennifer Jones). After a tragic murder, Victoria is struck with amnesia, whereupon Quinton finally meets her, and falls desperately in love. But what will happen when she remembers her past?

Both Cotten and Jones were loaned out from David O. Selznick, with plenty of strings attached. Jones was negotiated to receive $100,000 for nine weeks of work, and Selznick had final approval over her hairstyle, makeup and wardrobe. He also stipulated that Lee Garmes be hired as director of photography, who had just shot Jones in Since You Went Away (1944). Within these restrictions Dieterle crafts an unsettling love story that equates the spiritual and the ghostly. It begins in the content of his letters, in which he writes he envisions “life as a dream of beauty”, and his friend tells him that Victoria is a “pin-up girl of the spirit”. For Quinton, Victoria is a disembodied vision of love, a Platonic ideal to strive toward.

Then this ideal comes jarringly to earth. After Quinton is wounded in war, framed against the gauzy curtains of the army hospital, he returns home. At a party, the blonde hostess (Ann Richards) tells him “I see things that may happen to you”, with both their faces in a close-up. The world is contracting and shuddering around him. He inherits his Aunt’s cottage, and when he arrives the table is mysteriously set. A ghost servant! No, it is only Mac, a gruff Scottish butler whom Quinton had forgotten, and who he calls “gargoyle”. The border between life and death, and past and present (as Quinton rummages through his childhood toys) seems awfully thin indeed. It is within this atmosphere that he meets Victoria, whose identity has been subsumed inside an amnesiac who calls herself “Singleton”. Singleton has no past or future, an unearthly presence to match the fantasy “spirit” of the letters. Quinton’s great fear is that Victoria will regain her body, and he will again have to re-enter the fraught thicket of memory and psychology that embodiment will bring. He envies her “contagious serenity”, and fervently believes that she has “lost a world, but gained a soul”. This use of Quinton’s fantasy to motor the plot is a similar device to Jewel Robbery, in which Kay Francis’ erotic desire seems to will William Powell’s thief into existence.

The pace is subdued compared to his 30s films, but the deliberation is appropriate to document the slow re-emergence of Victoria and the subtle fissures between worlds. Dieterle instead utilizes elaborate set design and tight compositions to convey the sense of the uncanny. The film is shot entirely on backlots, an artificial world for incomplete people, shot in dramatic chiaroscuro by Garmes. There are endless shots of lamps lit and extinguished, intermittently illuminating a red splotch on a white dress that will end Quinton’s dream and re-start Victoria’s reality.


July 12, 2011

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Kay Francis dreamily asks for your complicit silence. She is about to commit an illicit act, and it would be gentlemanly not to speak of it.   So I shan’t, although I will spill fawning words about the film that encloses her, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932). It is screening as part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series (and airs on TCM on occasion), a near annual festivity of tough-talking immorality that begins this Friday, July 15th. Released the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s similarly themed Trouble in Paradise (and double-billed with it on August 7/8),  Dieterle’s debonair crime fantasy was necessarily overshadowed, but should be reckoned with as a major work in its own right.

A play by the Hungarian Ladislaus Fodor (“Ekzerrabalas a Vaci-uccaban”, 1931), was purchased by Warner Brothers on February 8th, 1932, with production beginning less than a month later, on March 2nd (credit to Roger Bryant’s biography, William Powell). To lens this sophisticated charmer set in Vienna, the studio tapped their European emigre, the German-born William Dieterle. Dieterle, a prolific actor and director in the Weimar cinema, came to Hollywood to shoot German language versions of WB productions. His first original film for the studio, the Lost Generation drama The Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here), was a success, and he went on an incredibly creative run throughout the 1930s (I would also recommend 6 Hours To Live (1932) and The Devil in Love (1933)).

For the leads, he was gifted William Powell and Kay Francis. $100,000 of the $291,039 budget went to Powell, more than a third of the entire cost. Francis received a comparatively paltry $27,000 (reported by Bryant). Powell plays the unnamed “Robber”, a fastidiously well mannered thief. Francis would get a supporting role in Trouble in Paradise later in the year, but here she is the slinky, shallow and slightly bored housewife Baroness Terri. Stuck with the wealthy but gout-ridden Baron Franz (Henry Kolker), she dreams of escape. Her fantasies incarnate when Powell swoops in to the jewelry store to relieve her of the “Excelsior Diamond” which she was about to squeeze out of the Baron. Entranced by his swaggering, well-coiffed masculinity, the robbery turns into a battling flirtation. Powell, equally intrigued, starts a game of break-ins into the Baroness’ quarters, forcing her to make a choice between comfort and passion.

Dieterle instills a martial rhythm, matching the military precision in which Powell’s Robber executes his heists. He cuts when a screen is filled or an action performed – no lingering on atmosphere. During production, reports Bryant, Warner executive Darryl Zanuck showed concerned about this speedy style. On March 26th he wrote producer Lucien Hubbard to, “keep your eye very close on the rushes of Dieterle…as he has a habit of shooting his most important scenes with the camera moving or sweeping around or going back and forth and you miss the most important point of all.” Ever the diplomat, he sang a different tune to Dieterle, on April 5th: “The rushes continue to be very excellent, and I like the manner in which you are continuing to put movement and action in all the scenes … Keep this up. This is very fine.”

In a rapid opening montage, Dieterle shows a series of safe doors shutting and locking. With equal precision, a group of jewelry shop employees scuttle to line up diagonally across the frame. Dieterle repeats this line-up image in the next two sequences.  As soon as the last man enters the frame, he cuts to the pretentious owner bragging about the new security system. Of course, a few seconds later, he is robbed.

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The next lineup occurs in the Baroness’ home, as a who army of maids tromps down a grand staircase to minister to her needs. In the first scene, the line of men was protecting a diamond, in the second, the line is pampering Kay Francis. This jewel/Baroness metaphor continues when one of her helpers carries her into a massage chair to be buffed into beauty – a delicate object cleaned up to be presented to the world.

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Powell’s men form the third line-up, a dapper parade of black-suited shysters. And they are here not to protect, but to steal. As the Baron, Baroness and friends try to escape the store, a group of top-hatted criminals enter from the back, doff their caps in unison, and aim guns at chests. It is this shift in the line-up pattern that that then shifts the narrative. No longer coddled, Baroness Teri is shocked out of her comfort zone, and into one of romantic fantasy.

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Powell’s perfection has an air of unreality about it, a charming, un-threatening adventurer conjured out of Teri’s imagination. After he frisks a revolver out of a lovely pearl-inlaid box, he tells the stunned patrons, “Would you kindly put up your hands”. And then, to calm their troubled nerves, he gives them all some pot to smoke (a joint is later passed to the police department, who fully investigate its possibilities). The idea that this is just a beautiful dream of Teri’s continues when she is whisked away, or willingly kidnapped, to his ornate apartment getaway, which is filled with his ill-gotten gains. As they sit down for dinner, she asks him for his name, and he gently refuses. To admit to a name would pin down his identity, and snuff out the mystery which fuels her desire. He is anything she wants him to be. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that portrays female fantasy with such sensitivity.


The other must-sees, or at least, the titles I’ve been most obsessed with recently, are three early stunners from Raoul Walsh:  Me and My Gal (1932), The Bowery (1933) and Sailor’s Luck (1933). 1932 was a good year. I wrote my first post here at Movie Morlocks on Me and My Gal, and lets see if it embarrasses:

Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

A little sloppy, but not bad. The movie, as always, astounds. The Bowery is a more personal project for Walsh, revisiting the street that he used to rubberneck at as a curious upper-middle class kid in New York. In his autobiography he writes about how he cast real winos and bums to fill the backgrounds of his shots, in which he experiments with deep focus, a technique he would investigate the rest of his career. Then there’s Sailor’s Luck, which sets a giddy land-speed record for sexual innuendo and bumptious ethnic humor.


April 12, 2011

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Olive Films continues to raid the Paramount vaults, this time with William Dieterle’s 1949 Casablanca clone Rope of Sand. Released on April 5th, along with Edward Dmytryk’s The Mountain (1956), it’s another strong DVD presentation from the company. The spotless print is presented in a progressive transfer that showcases the inky blacks of cinematographer Charles Lang. Producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in 1944 to form his own production company, Wallis-Hazen, and was eager to recreate his biggest hit for his new distributor Paramount. He bought Walter Doniger’s Casablanca-esque script and wrangled three of that film’s actors: Paul Lorre, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. The leads were given to Burt Lancaster, who was under contract to Wallis, and Corinne Calvet, a French siren the producer hoped to mold into the next Ingrid Bergman. The result is a prickly bit of entertainment, a threadbare and more nihilistic version of its model.

There is much less at stake in Walter Doniger’s screenplay. In Casablanca Bogart wrestles with aiding the French Resistance, and in Rope of Sand Burt Lancaster is trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a South African mine. Lancaster plays Mike Adams, a former hunting guide turned depressive. A few years back one of his clients wandered off onto the protected area of the mine, hoping to strike it rich. He succeeded in in finding a rich vein of jewels, but dies of dehydration. Davis is then caught by the mine’s security force, led by Paul Henreid’s Commandant Vogel. Vogel tries to beat the location of these diamonds out of him, but to no avail. Stripped of his license, and unable to obtain a passport, Davis is a man adrift. He returns to the mine to rip off the diamond load and get his revenge on Vogel. Claude Rains plays Arther Martingale, a mine functionary who plays both sides off each other, with the help of Corinne Calvet as the ambitious prostitute Suzanne Renaud.

Davis is a stridently unlikeable character: selfish, brutish and a little dense. Lancaster was evidently unhappy with the production, as his biographer Kate Buford reported that it was “he one he would remember as the worst movie in which he ever appeared.” Eager to play out the string of his Wallis contract, he gives Adams a cold, dumb brutality that hedges against the threat of audience identification. There are no anti-heroics here, just a profoundly unconvincing happy ending.

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Lang follow Casablanca‘s visual template, of cluttered baroque interiors and roving tracking shots inside bustling nightclubs. Lang uses lower light than the earlier film, perhaps compensating for the lack of background activity. While Casablanca has an expressive face sitting on every barstool, the world of Rope of Sand is relatively de-populated. Peter Lorre, who crawls into the film as a philosophizing fence, enters an empty frame. With less to explore, Dieterle’s camera movements are adumbrated compared to Curtiz’s long traveling shots down the bar. What Dieterle emphasizes instead are power relations, mainly expressed through a simple but effective method of blocking his actors along with alternating camera angles.

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When Mike Davis returns to South Africa on a freighter, Vogel is there to meet him with plum-voiced taunts. Davis is physically restrained by a pair of strapping deck hands, as Vogel looks imperiously downward. The camera peeks down at Davis, and upward at Vogel, quickly sketching their respective positions in the narrative. By the end, they are framed on equally level angles as their fortunes meet in the middle. Dieterle’s framing of Corinne Calvet undergoes a similar shift, tracking her transformation from a tool of Martingale’s to a woman who asserts her will.

The image that top-lines this post shows Calvert posing for Claude Rains, an erotic puppet that he’ll use to arouse the jealousies of Henreid and Lancaster. This becomes visualized in a poker game, before which Rains whispers devious nothings into Calvert’s ear. When she sits down, Rains is placed behind and to the right of her, his mouth still in visual range of her ear. Then the camera slowly dollies forward, and Calvet moves her head to the right, obscuring Rains’ face – the puppeteer lost in his art. Then there is a cut to Lancaster, with empty space around him – the only man outside of all human entanglement.

The controlling imagery surrounding Calvet continues when she goes home with Henreid, who pins her in-between two hanging canvas frames. She is a decoration to Henreid’s narcissistic martinet, window dressing to his tin-horn dictatorship. Little does he know that she’s under Rains’ employ, or that she is rapidly falling in love with the brusque Lancaster, for reasons that remain obscure aside from narrative necessity. By the end of the film the imagery of control and display fall away in Calvet’s scenes, and she shares equal screen space with Lancaster.

With thoughtful little stylistic strategies like these, Dieterle is able to lift his second-run scenario into something with a semblance of vitality. And thanks to the shit-eating grin of a performance by Claude Rains, as well as the reliably creepy work by Peter Lorre, Rope of Sand pulls itself together to be a diverting shadow of Casablanca.


July 27, 2010

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Like a herd of cattle ready to run down a restive kidnapper, Olive Films bursts into stores today with a phalanx of five DVDs licensed from Paramount Pictures: Union Station (1950), Appointment With Danger(1951), Dark City (1951), Crack in the World (1965), and Hannie Caulder (1971). A wholesale distributor and retailer of independent and art-house releases, Olive is now expanding its own acquisitions slate, starting with this brawny group of  genre titles. With multiple studios now experimenting with the mixed blessings of burn-on-demand technology (more releases, but higher prices and less quality control) for their library titles, it’s encouraging that a company is still willing to put out fully authored discs, in strong new transfers.

With the forthcoming, and essential, Josef Von Sternberg collection coming from Criterion, it’s clear that Paramount is becoming more aggressive in licensing its material.  Olive will release 27 Paramounts over the next year or so, including Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, Otto Preminger’s legendary and fascinating flop Skidoo, and Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. I spoke with the Director of Acquisitions and Sales at Olive, Frank Tarzi, and he confirms that much more is on the way. Olive has closed deals with multiple studios, and their future slate shows off adventurous and eclectic taste, with Tarzi confirming the following: Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair, The Stationmaster’s Wife (uncut), and I Only Want You to Love Me (uncut), Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, Claude Chabrol’s Ophelia, and, most exciting of all, Jean-Luc Godard’s complete Histoire(s) du cinema.

But enough of the tantalizing future.  Union Station is a taut, architectural noir from Rudolph Maté, the ace Polish cameraman who lensed Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. His career in Hollywood never reached those aesthetic heights, but he was a consummate craftsman with an eye for visual detail. Here he’s given a police procedural about the kidnapping of a blind girl, and although set in Chicago, much of it was shot at Los Angeles’ Union Station (Thom Anderson pinched some scenes for Los Angeles Plays Itself, his history of L.A. on film).

Maté maps out the station with a near 180 degree pan, taking in the information booth and the crowds before settling on the STATION POLICE HEADQUARTERS sign. In the same shot, he then tilts up to a filigreed window which houses the station’s security services, where William Holden barks irritated orders to his indolent staff. Knowing every inch of his turf, he seems to blend into the walls when peering around corners for the jowly perps he’s tailing. The attention to spatial detail turns the film into a documentary of Union Station, with the plot just an excuse for exploration.

Holden’s expertise is gained through repetition, and he looks appropriately bored throughout. It’s just his job, after all. In the study that essentially defined “film noir”, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953 (first published in 1955), the writers compare it unfavorably to He Walked By Night, but find some saving (violent) graces:

“The film is interesting, though, for showing how the security services of a big train station work. Aside from the ill-treatment inflicted on a blind girl by her kidnapper, there are two scenes of momentarily authentic noir cinema: a gangster flattened during his escape by a stampeding herd of steers maddened by gunfire [top image]; the pressing invitations to spill the beans exercised by the cops on an untalkative accessory to a crime. After giving him a working over using state-of-the-art methods, they drag him onto a platform overlooking the railroad track. “Make it look accidental,” the police inspector orders. When a train passes beneath, they grab hold of the “tough boy” and make as if to push him off [see left]. The guy immediately screams that he’ll “talk,” and he’s led away distraught, ready to sell out father and mother alike.”

Dark City is an altogether seedier affair, a story of greedy low-lifes who bilk a sucker out of his cash, driving him to suicide. No big deal, except the dead man’s psychopathic brother targets them for strangling. Charlton Heston, in his first starring role, is the most sympathetic low-life, Danny. But when the competition is Jack Webb at his sleaziest, playing a dirtbag named “Augie”, it’s not much of an accomplishment. Directed by Hungarian emigre William Dieterle in looming close-ups and dramatic chiaroscuro from DP Victor Millner (who has an incredible resume), it’s a woozy, sluggish and occasionally haunting noir about guilt, failure, class and forgetting. Danny is a college grad and army vet, and so, the police captain tells him, he has no excuse to live the life he does, not like the street boys he runs with.

Heston plays him as somnolent and dreamy, his every line pulled out with stubborn slowness, like Robert Mitchum on vicodin. It’s a hypnotically effective performance, of a man who no longer wants anything to do with his body. He repeatedly tells his ignored girlfriend Fran (Lizabeth Scott), of his need to be alone, but she still loves him anyway. James Naremore, who has written the best recent book on noir, More Than Night, offers an adolescent memory of the film in his introduction“What I remember best are the fetishized details – Lizabeth Scott’s unreal blondness and husky voice in Dark City, or Edmond O’ Brien’s rumpled suit as he runs desperately down the crowded street in D.O.A. [directed by Rudolph Maté]“. To that I’ll add one more: Harry Morgan’s fake upturned nose, a physical marker of his pugilist past and the cause of his punchy good humor. He’s been knocked silly once too many, but Morgan’s ebullient and melancholic turn makes him much more than a punchline.

Appointment With Danger re-teams Webb and Morgan, the future Dragnet partners, and this time they’re both hoods. They are planning a heist with the heavy-lidded Paul Stewart, but an errant corpse spied by a nun sets the plot machinery in motion. Alan Ladd is the cynical motor, an expressionless slab who is smart enough not to impede the snappy dialogue by Richard L. Breen (who would later pen the Dragnet movie) and Warren Duff (“Love is between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam”). He plays a postal inspector, one of the raft of government employees feted in procedurals of this era (including Holden in Union Station).

I relinquish the rest of this review to three separate pieces from Manny Farber:

“Appointment With Danger is a fascinating textbook on the Average American Flop – his speech, mien, sage misanthropy, doubt. It is also a well-done report on the geography of Gary, Indiana, a place that seems crowded with failures.”


“Tight plotting, good casting, and sinuously droopy acting by Jan Sterling, as an easily had broad who only really gets excited about – and understands – waxed bop.”


“A YMCA scene that emphasizes the wonderful fat-waisted, middle-aged physicality of people putting on tennis shoes and playing handball.”


And I will note one last notable occurrence: Harry Morgan’s quavering face as he gives a speech about his estranged son, protesting that he will not run off to St. Louis to avoid the heat of being named to the cops. His features are close to collapsing, but he re-harnesses them in a flush of machismo. He mentions his son’s bronzed booties. Webb than takes one of them and beats Morgan to death.


April 13, 2020

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To celebrate their one-year anniversary, the Warner Archive held a decent sale last month, netting five discs for $55. One of the titles I snapped up is The Last Flight,  William Dieterle’s 1931 film about disillusioned WWI fly-boys on a European bender.  French director and critic Nicolas Saada called it “possibly one of the greatest films ever made” over at Dave Kehr’s site, while filmmaker and blogger David Cairns posted an enthusiastic review at his Shadowplay journal. Along with a hearty endorsement from a friend who’s a Richard Barthelmess buff, I had high expectations for this rather unknown early talkie.

The Last Flight was Dieterle’s first Hollywood production, after a varied career in Germany, which was highlighted early on in his stint with Max Reinhardt’s theatrical troupe, starting in 1919. He switched to film in ’23, and later co-directed Reinhardt’s silver-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). His varied resume from this period includes directing and acting alongside Marlene Dietrich in Man By the Roadside (1923), performing in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), and starting up his own production company with his wife Charlotte Hagenbruch (for whom he made Sex in Chains (1928)).

He made the leap to Hollywood by directing German versions of American films. He spoke to Tom Flinn about this period:

I was hired to make synchronizations. Sound had just come in, and Hollywood was afraid of losing foreign markets. So they hired German, French and Spanish units to make foreign versions of important features…. The four films we were to make had already been completed. All the sets were still standing and dressed – we used the same costumes and everything. The big difference was that we had just ten days to make each picture.

His work on these foreign-language quickies must have impressed the suits at Warner Bros., because he was soon hired on to direct The Last Flight, which John Monk Saunders adapted into a screenplay from his own novel, Single Lady (1931) (Moira Finnie wrote a detailed history of the writer’s life and career here). Saunders had already won an Oscar for Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), and had provided the stories to Best Picture winner Wings (1927, William Wellman) and critical favorite The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg).  A fellow-traveler with the Lost Generation despite living in the U.S., Saunders was broken-hearted over spending WWI as a flight instructor in Florida, and his ex-wife Fay Wray described him as someone “who wanted to live dangerously and die young.”  He acted out his untapped aggressions on the page, and The Last Flight is heavily influenced by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – it’s a boozy portrait of post-war disillusionment and decadence.  Instilled with a snarky, slangy, and deflective dialogue, the tremors of violence in The Last Flight are repressed under layers of protective irony.

This was a challenging, rather prestigious debut for the German emigre to take on, but Dieterle succeeds skillfully. Instead of anchoring Saunders’s script with heavy symbolism, he glides along the surface just like the characters, employing rapid-fire montages, agile tracking-shots, and close-ups as punctuation. Every other shot seems to be an exclamation, punchy and precise. The way they order martinis is accompanied by a smooth track to the left, each man’s intonation rising in a barbershop quartet of mockery. After finding out a dame’s name, Dieterle repeats the shot from a more frontal angle, and he glides left as they repeat her name, with the same mocking tone. This establishes their unity as a comedic team, and sets the template for their deconstructive use of language. Every word has a double-meaning, twisted into a sarcastic punchline. This glossy, fast-paced style allows the fliers’ grim reality to creep in through the corners. Dieterle doesn’t find a way to leaven some of Saunders’ clunkier metaphors – like their army doctor’s intoning about how they are “spent bullets” – but this draggy thematic exposition is the exception rather than the rule.

The story revolves around four friends from the Air Force, recently discharged after suffering physical and mental trauma in WWI. Richard Barthelmess plays Cary Lockwood, the informal leader of the trio, a tremulous and reckless pilot who burned up his hands upon a crash landing, who would die rather than accept pity from a stranger. Then there’s Shep Lambert (David Manners), whose gift from the war is a twitching eye, which he can only combat by constantly getting drunk (asked what his plans are, he says, “Get tight.” After that? “Stay tight.”) Bill Talbot (Johnny Mack Brown) runs on adrenaline, constantly proving his masculinity on the new battlefield of the city, tackling horses and then meeting his final fate in a bullfight. Lastly there’s Francis (Elliott Nugent), a meek wallflower type who’s tasked to babysit some turtles. He only comes alive with a gun in his hand.

They form a circle around Nikki (Helen Chandler), a flighty socialite who speaks in nonsense rhymes that hide a spiky intelligence, or, as Lockwood describes her, “the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records.” Chandler is a revelation here, ditzy and distant, chin pointed up as she floats around rooms in a dream-like state of childish denial and innocence. She’s introduced as a woman apart, standing alone with a cup of tea, oblivious to the tuxedoed airmen staring at her from across the room. But what Chambers eventually makes clear through her coded speech and slow-motion gestures is that her distance is a choice, and a kind of defense mechanism. Her words keep the humorously wooing men at a distance:  “anyone kisses me too hard…it’ll split my lip.” Chambers is radiant and inscrutable, as hard-hearted as the men but seemingly more wise.

The whole setup feels like a Howard Hawks film – what with the group of professional-minded men struggling with their self-respect while jousting with an independent-minded woman – and it even acts as a kind of prequel to the more loving fly-boys in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), where Barthelmess plays another disgraced flier clumsily groping for redemption. But unlike in Hawks, there is very little hope for the survival of the group. These are, as Saunders sometimes over-emphasizes, broken men, with little hope of re-integrating into society. They drink and drink until they crack-up, camaraderie the only thing keeping them alive.